Although this sleepy city in Romagna is such a treasure trove that no less than eight of its buildings are on UNESCO's coveted World Heritage List, most visitors don't get here until their third, fourth or fiftieth trip to Italy. Ironically, Ravenna owes its very existence to the same circumstances that make it hard to visit today. Like Venice (but many centuries earlier), it started out as a haphazard settlement of fishermen whose straw huts were built on stilts to protect them from the surrounding marshes and the sea. In the first century before Christ, Ravenna was only a few hundred yards from the Adriatic. At high tide, the flimsy houses seemed literally to float on the water.
There's only one reason anyone would chose to call such a dismal place home: it was 100% defensible. To the east were treacherous shoals and lagoons, to the west were malarial swamps that effectively cut the tiny encampment off from the rest of the continent. The strategically minded Romans, realizing the location's potential, incorporated it into the Empire in 89 B.C. Forty years later, Caesar gathered his armies here before crossing the nearby Rubicon to defeat Pompey. This clinched Ravenna's fortune, and four years later Octavian Augustus built her a harbor. Big enough to accommodate 250 ships, Classis soon became headquarters for the Roman Empire's northern fleet. The marshes were drained and shipping canals were dug westward and northward, effectively assuring that Ravenna would retain her strategic importance for centuries to come.
In Rome, those centuries were marked by struggle between the Empire and Christianity. When Emperor Constantine died in 337, the outlawed faith had become a state religion and Byzantium had become Constantinople. One of his many edicts, by the way, granted tax-exempt status to all mosaicists in his new capital. Hundreds of them flocked there, to be rewarded with state subsidies on a wealth of materials including gold leaf.
The decades following Constantine's rule saw the Empire split into two not always friendly halves: the Eastern Roman Empire seated in Constantinople and the Western Roman Empire based in Milan. At the same time the Mongols were expanding across the eastern steppes, forcing the Huns, Ostrogoths and Visigoths to move westward and across the Alps into what had come to be known as Italia. In 402, the Western Roman Emperor Honorius, a retiring man uninterested in any kind of warfare, moved his capital to Ravenna, partly to get it out of the way and partly to be where the powerful Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by his father, Theodosius I, could easily come to his aid. Sure enough, the barbarians swept down the peninsula, invading and completely overwhelming Rome itself in 409. Honorius's half-sister Galla Placidia was kidnapped and held in captivity for nine years. Eventually Honorius ransomed her and married her off to her former captor, Ataulf. When Honorius died, Galla became regent for her son Valentinian, a post she held for 12 years. She died in 450AD, leaving several impressive monuments as a legacy, including her Mausoleum.
The city's most glorious period was still a century away. For the moment there were only more barbarians, who held Ravenna incommunicado for three years until Theodoric swooped down and banished them, beginning Ravenna's second great age of enlightenment. The King of the Goths, as Theodoric I was known, established a realm that showed unusual tolerance for all religious sects and ethnic groups. He encouraged a rebirth of the arts, which resulted in the building of several more masterpieces. It is typical of the times that neither he nor Galla is portrayed even once amongst all the saints, souls and sacred deities in the glorious mosaics they sponsored.
Not long after Theodoric died, the Eastern Roman Empire gained its most powerful ruler, Justinian I. Much of his reign was spent defending Rome from the Goths. While he and his renowned general Belisarius were successful in vanquishing the enemy, it was not before Italy herself had been devastated. When the Gothic Wars were brought to an end in 553, Milan was a deserted wasteland, Rome's population had plummeted from a million to 40,000, hundreds of towns had been bled to death by greedy warlords, the entire country's agriculture had virtually ground to a halt, and the ruling class had been so decimated that there could never again be a Roman Senate.
While the sun was setting on Europe and the Dark Age was beginning, the East was just starting to shine. Ravenna proved herself to be the last true Oriental outpost on the continent, for it was during this very same period that her two greatest artistic masterpieces were built: the churches of San Vitale and Sant'Apollinare in Classe. These are Ravenna's purest expressions of Byzantine artistry, and surely represent some of its highest achievements.
Although the city retained its position of vital importance for two more centuries, it never again shone as it did during Justinian's reign. In 741 it was captured by the Lombards, who were in turn defeated by Pipin the Great. In gratitude, the Pope authorized Pipin and his son Charlemagne to take anything they wished from the city. For decades their armies carted off hundreds of kilos of treasures. Ravenna never forgave Rome for this: she withdrew into her swamps, cutting herself off so effectively that it was the only place Dante could find sanctuary after being exiled from Florence. In the ensuing centuries, she was alternately sacked and rebuilt by a never-ending succession of foreign invaders. Many of them salvaged the ancient aqueducts and canals, but they did not have the Romans' engineering skills, and their grandiose projects usually led to serious floods which completely silted over the harbor at Classis and brought further damage to the city's treasures.
Today the buildings themselves are hostages, prisoners of an environmental invasion caused by the burgeoning local chemical industry. As elsewhere, pollution and other invisible enemies may actually complete the destruction begun by the barbarians. Just one more reason to make sure Ravenna is on your map the next time you go to Italy!
by Kristin Jarratt
Ravenna: The Facts
As we know, the people who founded Ravenna more than two millennia ago retreated there to keep the world away. The Venetians, age-old rivals of the ravennati (as Ravenna's citizens are called), will tell you the latter are still trying to discourage visitors and that this is why the city has such a pathetic lack of fine lodgings. Luckily, there is a beautiful new hotel in town. Small, elegant, and managed by an extremely friendly staff, it is only minutes away from San Vitale.
Click here for a street map of Ravenna.
Ravenna, the surrounding pinewoods (planted by the Roman legions!), the Comacchio marshlands and the nearby seacoast are as flat as an ironing board, so you may wish to rent a bike for a day. Contact Coop San Vitale, Piazza Farini (in front of the train station); tel. 0544/37031.
We highly recommend you buy a good guidebook in Ravenna. Gianfranco Bustacchini's excellent Ravenna, i mosaici, i monumenti e l'ambiente is also available in English and costs less than 10 Euro.
Aside from the churches and museums, Ravenna offers loads of other attractions: